Police in Rome are hunting for a possible serial killer after the bodies of three women were found in two apartments in the upmarket district of Prati.

Two of the women, both sex workers of Chinese nationality believed to be aged between 40 and 50, were found stabbed to death in an apartment on Via Augusto Riboty.

The porter of the building raised the alarm after finding the body of one of the deceased women on the doorstep of the apartment on Thursday morning, while the other body was found inside.

The body of a Colombian woman, identified as Marta Castano Torres, also a sex worker who had been stabbed to death, was found by her sister in a basement apartment on a nearby street.

Stab wounds to the throat, chest and back were found on the bodies of the Chinese women, who are yet to be identified.

A source at Rome police said investigators were working on the theory that the women were murdered by the same person. Torres, 65, who the Italian press said was working as a sex worker to support her daughter financially, is believed to have been killed before the two other victims.

The killings occurred a few hundred metres from Italy’s supreme court, in an elegant neighbourhood where in recent years there has been a growth in criminal networks running prostitution businesses out of apartments.

The killings have prompted calls for prostitution to become a regulated profession in Italy to protect sex workers. Italy permits street prostitution but organised prostitution and brothels are illegal.

“These murders are horrific,” said Ermina Gbido from the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes, a non-profit organisation founded by sex workers in 1982 to fight against sex trafficking and support people in the profession.

“For sure, there are criminal networks that manage sex workers in apartments, exploiting them and making them go from apartment to apartment, working long hours. This is a nasty business. But we also need to understand that there are those who want to do this work but cannot do it in a place of safety as the norms do not allow it.”

Federico Rocca, a councillor in Rome for Brothers of Italy, the far-right party of the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, said the business of prostitution in apartments was strongly rooted in “every district of the city”.

“Three people lost their lives, brutally killed by a possible client,” he told the Italian media. “We must wait for the outcome of the investigation but there is sadness over their fate, and at the same time anger as, once again, we’ve had to wait for something serious to happen in order to tear down the wall of hypocrisy surrounding the phenomenon of prostitution in apartments.”

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